With the release of Mirrodin Besieged I’ve been switching around the cards in my Jaya Ballard, Task Mage Commander deck in my search for the elusive optimal build. While there weren’t many new red cards to play with (although Red Suns Zenith and Into the Core come to mind) a couple of artifacts caught my eye, particularly Bonehoard. In an archetype that is often hurting for card advantage, Bonehoard offers great value in a colorless Lhurgoyf that can turn your other creatures into Lhurgoyfs as well.
That said I am completely sold on the living weapon mechanic. Much like Sword of Body and Mind, which solves the “dead equipment” issue by generating bodies with which to equip the sword, living weapons are equipment cards with the creatures provided free of charge. And casting Godo, Bandit Warlord to search for a Bonehoard... how much card advantage (and rhyming) is that!?
Card advantage isn’t always an easy thing to measure and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what kind your Commander deck needs. But you know that in any given multiplayer game you never want to be the player sitting dead in the water with one card in hand, durdling around while the other players get to have fun with their shiny toys. You always want to be making plays and you want to be continuously impacting the board or progressing your own game plan. It’s probably obvious, but card advantage helps you win as well as have fun.
Not all card advantage is equal, nor is it so simple to just compare one spell to another. It is sometimes more difficult to gauge in Commander where there are so many differing strategies and color combinations to choose from. Some cards will serve you better in the early game while others serve much better later on. Some cards fit one main role but offer card advantage as a secondary function. Still other spells offer great value for their cost while indirectly providing card advantage.
This week, in honor of the mighty Bonehoard, I hope to shed a little light on some of the differences between certain cards classified as “card advantage” and help you avoid certain thinking traps when building and tweaking your Commander deck. I hope this breakdown won’t be too elementary to readers but I want to emphasize the importance of building card advantage into a Commander deck.
Incremental card draw engines
Incremental card advantage is pretty straightforward. A good card draw engine offers you physical cards every turn, essentially adding extra cards to your draw step. Untapping with one of these in play is a pretty darn nice feeling.
In Commander these kinds of cards are incredible early on for their ability to grease the gears of your game and can also help reload your hand in the late game (although not as quickly as you may like). If left untouched, an early card draw engine will go a long way to winning the game for you. Sylvan Library is a bit of a blend because it lets you manipulate your library while letting you decide if you want to draw more cards. For just two mana this is obviously busted. Unlike Constructed, players are not likely to remove your engine so early on in Commander. The only card that should be the exception, in my opinion, is Rhystic Study which people should be killing way more often. [Editor's Note: And pay one mana every time until it is killed. Seriously, it's not that painful!]
Library manipulation engines
I am not a fan of library manipulation spells in Commander (like Impulse). Each card slot in your list is precious and burning a card to look for another card, which you may or may not find, is not the best use of resources. That is why I prefer permanents that provide continuous opportunities to dig and search.
Card manipulation lets you look at and reorder the top cards of your deck to help you dig for a card you need at any given moment. The key point here is that unless you have a shuffle effect handy, like an unused "fetch" land (Arid Mesa), you are only paying for a short-term benefit because you are not drawing additional cards and, cards with scry aside, you are likely leaving less helpful cards on the top of your deck. For the uninitiated, that is why people play fetch lands with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Land Tax with Scroll Rack. Dig for a card you want, then shuffle away the chaff.
Library manipulation is more helpful in the mid to late game when you are actively looking for answers to your opponents and seeking specific cards to assemble your board state and win conditions. That is not to say that library manipulation is not helpful early on. Like incremental card draw engines the more cards you see the more options are available to you. But when you’re under the gun and things become urgent, library manipulation pulls ahead because it helps you look deeper into your deck.
Tutors don’t provide raw card advantage but they are a bit like library manipulation on steroids: you get what you want exactly when you want it. I don’t like including too many of these cards in my Commander decks because while they are quite powerful they are a little useless in the early game. You never really want to burn a card, or in some cases a draw step, to find something that doesn’t immediately impact the table and help you win you the game. A word of warning: tutors also draw a bit of hate in Commander because other players will realize you are clearly up to something no matter how much you try to convince them you’re just searching for a mana source. [Editor's Note: Just "a mana source" can be something scary too given the right context.]
Card draw spells
I do not necessarily like these spells for the same reason as library manipulation spells: while they are certainly helpful in some parts of the game, burning one card to get three or even four cards is not always the best use of resources. In the mid game it is almost perfect but often it is too much or just not enough. I never turn my nose up at drawing cards but I try to use these one-shot spells sparingly.
Explosive card draw
While tutors are one-shot spells that get you what you want in any given situation, explosive card advantage spells will instantly give you your second wind and pull you head and shoulders above the rest of the table. Many of these cards are almost considered unfair because they are so powerful but don’t feel bad about using them. You don’t want to be the one durdling, remember? Once you’ve landed one of these expect to have a target painted on your head by other players. But the sheer card advantage is usually well worth the hate.
Cantrips begin to drift more into the discussion of value in terms of playing your spells while negating your those of your opponents. With cantrips you are playing a spell with a main purpose and getting a card draw as a “bonus” which essentially replaces the spell you played. The almighty Bonehoard, in a sense, falls into this category because you are paying for the equipment but getting a "free" creature.
It is important not to include so many cantrips that the overall power of your spells is diluted. Sure, Smash draws you a card but is that as strong as Into the Core? Maybe there are better ways to draw extra cards. In my experience, the best ones to play in Commander are the ones you can potentially abuse, like bouncing or recurring Coiling Oracle and Mulldrifter.
So, what kind of card draw works best for you? The easy answer, and the one I will invoke, is “It depends.” If you are playing an aggressive deck that wants to quickly play out its cards early on you may need a Necropotence or Lead the Stampede to reload your hand for a second go. If your deck is slower and more methodical Jace Beleren can provide a steady source of card advantage until you’ve reached critical mass. Even so, if you plan on assembling a combo to winyou may need the precision power of tutors to get the cards you need. And sometimes you’re just abusing enter-battlefield abilities so you may prefer to focus on just creature-centric cantrips.
It’s important to remember that card draw shouldn’t overshadow the rest of your deck. Unless your Commander is Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, card draw shouldn’t be the sole focus of the deck. Your deck still needs a cohesive strategy and answers to a wide range of threats. Additional card advantage should just grease the wheels enough to help you out when you’ve hit a snag in your game.
Until next time, try not to play Distant Memories.
@derfington on Twitter
(Author’s note: I wanted to name this article “MOAR CRADS” but such a title would not have withstood the withering editorial gaze of Adam Styborski.)
[Editor's Note: Partially wrong. The "crads fad" may be old but I enjoy asking people if they have "any foil crads" to trade. Sometimes.]